This week marks the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Lincoln, one of our most revered presidents, was born in rural Kentucky and raised in Illinois. He is often held up as an example of how individual effort determines a person’s course in life.
While many people in his time might have viewed the education that he embraced as a waste of time, Lincoln spent every possible minute reading books. There are stories of how he would walk for hours to borrow or return a book. Lincoln worked constantly. His law partner, William H. Herndon, noted in “Life of Lincoln” that “his ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” Sustained individual effort, always working, is a far cry from where we are today.
In his New York Times op-ed column “Failure to Rise,” Paul Krugman writes “America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years.” Krugman’s point is that “$800 billion, while it sounds like a lot of money, isn’t nearly enough.” Krugman wants more government intervention. He calls for more, more, more, from Washington, and concludes with a warning, “There’s still time to turn this around. But Mr. Obama has to be stronger looking forward. Otherwise, the verdict on this crisis might be that no, we can’t.”
His approach put responsibility for the economy into the lap of the government. From his perspective, it appears as if the government has total control, and what it does will, in the end, determine what happens. If we believed this, all individual effort would stop, we would no longer try to improve ourselves and our nation would suffer from what Dr. Martin Seligman, the Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, calls “learned helplessness.”
In his New York Times op-ed column “The Worst-Case Scenario,” David Brooks takes the opposite tack and lays out how the government’s response to the current situation might be viewed years from now: “Far from easing uncertainty, the exploding deficits led to more fear. The U.S. could not afford to respond to new emergencies, like hurricanes or foreign crises. Other nations sensed American overextension. Foreign debt-holders grew nervous. Interest rates rose. Congress indulged its worst instincts, erecting trade barriers, propping up doomed companies. Scholars began to talk about the American Disease, akin to the British Disease of the 1970s.”
This past week’s conversations have reflected the growing belief among conservatives that the Obama administration’s policies are moving us toward a period of nationalism and government control that at some point will leave us looking like the British did more than three decades ago.
So what might be the best-case scenario?
This past week, I was e-mailed a link to a video clip of Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat from New York. “And let me say this to all of the chattering class, that so much focuses on those little, tiny, yes porky amendments, the American People really don’t care,” he said during a debate on the stimulus bill.
My son Robert, who was standing by the computer and overheard Schumer, corrected him with “The American people DO care.” If a seven-year-old understands that the American people care, well then there is hope.
The best-case scenario is one in which Americans decide that they do care, that they are optimistic, that they can change their lives, try something different and create their own future. This would require they understand how current policies would affect the future and act to stop them – moving rapidly to embrace an economy based on change, optimism and personal responsibility rather than waiting for the crushing corset of nationalism to further squeeze the economy, wreaking more havoc.
My mother told me yesterday that her ladies investment club members grappled with how to respond to the uncertainty. The members were trying to determine whether to continue to make monthly contributions to their investment fund or to stop payments until some time in the future, when the crisis has eased. She recommended they continue. “Right now,” she told them, “someone who has been laid off of work is in their basement inventing the next big thing. I believe in the American people.”
My hope is that there are lots of people in their basements inventing, and not on their computers answering offers to help them get their portion of the stimulus package.
The cure for the British disease of the 1970’s was Margaret Thatcher. “We want to work with the grain of human nature, helping people to help themselves – and others,” noted the 1979 British Conservative Manifesto. “This is the way to restore that self reliance and self confidence which are the basis for personal responsibility and national success.”
If we really want to honor the great presidents of our nation, let’s each of us emulate them by becoming little individual engines that know no rest, working toward personal responsibility and national success.